Unlocking the Third Dimension in Transportation

Unlocking the Third Dimension in Transportation

Right now, across the globe, almost 200 companies are working on electrically powered, vertical take-off and landing (e-vtol) flying machines. They range from inventors with rendered images seeking angel investors, to major aerospace manufacturers developing concepts and service models to address both the opportunity and the threat of the new urban air mobility market. Behind this activity are bold claims about the future for the market, with Morgan Stanley putting the potential market size at $1.5trillion by 2039. This market—urban air mobility—is all about the use of flying vehicles to transport people into, out of, and across a city, usually as an integrated part of the ground-based transport service. The concept itself is nothing new. The invention of the helicopter generated the first round of hype in urban air mobility, opening up for the first time the potential to fly into the heart of an urban area. In the 1960s you could take a helicopter from the top of the Pan Am skyscraper to any of the city’s airports, with 48 flights a day and a trip costing no more than $6 ($43 at 2019 prices). Today, in many of today’s megacities including Sao Paulo, New Delhi, and New York, helicopters are still being used to circumnavigate the gridlock on the ground, albeit now enhanced by the technology offered by transport apps such as Uber.

The exponential increase in investment into urban air mobility has been driven by three key factors. Firstly, the increasing urbanization of our societies (expected to be 68 percent of the world’s population by 2050 according to the UN) is leading to ever-increasing congestion and pollution in our cities. Secondly, the incredible advances in computing processing power and the advent of ‘the cloud’ have unlocked the potential of artificial intelligence to enable much more complex and integrated transportation service models. And thirdly, advances in distributed electrical propulsion, battery capacity, and highly automated flight controls are enabling a new breed of aircrafts that can take off vertically like a helicopter and fly horizontally like a plane using cheap, clean, and quiet electric propulsion—with all of the complexity of flight dynamics handled by the automated control systems. So, the problem statement is powerful and the potential solution compelling. Added to that, some of the simpler e-vtol aircrafts are reaching maturity, with demonstration flights already being carried out—notably, by Volocopter that have flown in Dubai, Stuttgart, and at Helsinki airport.

"Advances in distributed electrical propulsion, battery capacity, and highly automated flight controls are enabling a new breed of aircrafts that can take off vertically like a helicopter"

However, some big hurdles need to be resolved before vehicles can enter any kind of operational service. One of these is the battery, which is the main limiting factor for vehicle performance. Whilst there are numerous claims made about the range the different vehicles can achieve, what is clear is that the capacity to weight ratio is at best borderline adequate for the shortest distances and at worst, still a number of years of development away from being truly viable.

Another hurdle is e-vtol certification. Both the European and American regulatory bodies—EASA and the FAA respectively—have made significant progress in publishing draft regulations, but there are still no certified vehicles. Once this begins, I expect that the operation of e-vtol aircraft will commence in a similar manner to the current helicopter—using existing air traffic management technology and flying along existing routes. By operating within the existing air traffic management framework, we have the potential to get back to the kind of services that began in the 1960s. And it is at this point that I believe we’ll discover if this new market is going to fully establish itself.

Looking back at the New York helicopter flights of the 60s, we can learn a valuable lesson. Operations were halted twice, and neither time because of feasibility or lack of demand. Instead, the first halt came because people living in the city (particularly near the landing sites) became painfully aware of just how noisy the helicopters were, and so formed a protest group and had flights banned. Undeterred, New York Airlines sourced a quieter helicopter and, years later, restarted operations. But on May 16th, 1977, tragedy struck when the landing gear of a helicopter failed, causing the spinning rotors to strike the ground, break off and head straight into the line of the waiting passengers—before falling off the roof and landing on a passer-by, 59 floors below. The service never restarted. So whilst you need the technology and regulations in place to make the concepts possible and high demand to create the business case, the critical hurdle is going to be whether the public will permit urban air mobility in their neighborhoods. I consider this to be the biggest challenge facing this new industry, not because I don’t consider it to be possible, but because it’s the last one we will face, and it’s the most fragile.

The other hurdles are relatively binary (you either have certification or you don’t; the vehicle can either fly a certain distance or it can’t). But public acceptance can change overnight. And the public is extremely unaccepting of new technology when it causes death, even if it’s an order of magnitude safer than what it replaces—as evidenced by the amount of publicity Tesla receives when its self-driving vehicles lead to a fatality. And when an accident does occur, the damage is widespread, with all players tarred with the same brush, whether or not they have the same issues. To add further complication to this hurdle, different societies will place different demands on the new service. For example, the level of noise tolerated in New Delhi or Sao Paulo is likely to be higher than would be tolerated in a Northern European city (based on the current level of acceptance of helicopters).

Given the criticality of public acceptance to the success of this market, engaging with the public to understand what will and will not be tolerated by society will enable us to greatly de-risk the return on the investments that are currently being made. It will lead to user-centric designs and a solution that is more likely to have a long-term future. It is clearly the case that the technology and regulation development focus needs to continue, but history teaches us that if we want to increase the chances of this new technology being successfully adopted, the public engagement needs to begin now.

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